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Pocket Con: Comics for Chicago’s Youth

A breakdancer in a handstand freeze performs with a crowd of people of various ages around them.

Performance at Pocket Con.

Photo: Elgin Smith.

by Isi Frank Ativie


Since 2012, Pocket Con has been a huge attraction for comic book fanatics of all backgrounds—this year, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosts the convention on December 9 during Family Day, a day at the museum that boasts free admission for families and an array of programming for young visitors and their adults. This will be an incredible day for Elgin Bokari T. Smith, a graphic illustrator and organizer of Pocket Con, who's looking forward to seeing artists, musicians, and visitors from all walks of life.

Conversation with Elgin Smith

A darker-skinned man in a cutoff button-down flannel smiling widely at the camera poses beside the undergirding of a raised walkway.

Elgin Smith.

Image courtesy of the artist

“For me, I’m extremely excited about having this show,” said Smith. “So, coming to the MCA, it’s been something that has been on our minds about trying to make happen if we could. So, it’s so great that it’s finally here now. So, I’m super excited about that.”

Smith, a St. Louis native, is the son of an artist who started his journey with comic illustration at the age of five, when he drew his first five-page comic titled The Big Ninjas. Smith would continue this artistic passion at age 13, when he designed a mural by himself and created a comic book titled Electro Kid. This comic was created collaboratively with a peer who previously fought Smith; the two eventually became friends.

“After that [the fight], I realized that me and that dude both like to draw,” Smith recalled. “And I was like, 'Your drawing is kind of dope.' And he said, 'Yours is too.'”

“A lot of Black superheroes actually have electrical powers,” Smith added. “I think maybe Black people, especially Black youth, have an affinity with electricity. Because it’s one of the few things that we’re heavily into, like having powerlines through your cheeks when you throw your sneakers on. Maybe there’s a correlation between that, I don’t know.”

Later, Smith’s mother would enroll him in an entrepreneurship program. During this time, he would attend family reunions and drew caricatures of family members. When he reached grammar school, he encountered a gentleman who would launch his passion to a new level.

“I went to start selling my posters and stuff, I was coloring everything,” he said. “From there, there was a guy who bought my art; I wish I can remember his name. There was a dude who came up and he was like, 'Brother, can I show your art in my talk today?', and I was like, 'Sure!' I was still in middle school. He held up my art, I remember he bought the female equivalent to the Electro Kid which was Electro Girl. And he was like, 'This is what I was talking about. This young man is selling this, and we need to invest into young people like this.' And that changed my life.”

Despite being a successful young artist, Smith dealt with a tumultuous period of ruthless bullying by classmates. He would use this pain as a catalyst for creative projects, as well as an outlet, as Smith got older.

“It was bad,” he recounted. “It would get to the point where I was getting stabbed with pencils and all of that kind of stuff. I actually made a comic book after that based on that experience called The Shmo, where that dude had the power to change to any superhero as long as he had like a comic book of that person on him, and he would get those powers. I did it actually when I was in college. There was a scene where The Shmo was getting beat up and bullied by everybody. He's just taking focus on drawing comics and stuff like that. And it was kind of like a real-life experience.”

Smith then attended Central Visual and Performing Arts High School, and found mentorship in his former teacher, William Perry, who led him in a unique direction for his artistic practice and career.

“Shout-out to Mr. Perry,” Smith added. “He helped to really steer my career. He would take me to the art museum and helped me out with my portfolio. And that got me into SAIC.”

Prior to graduating from high school in 2005, Smith had received over $40,000 in scholarship funds from different colleges and art institutions—this was the highest amount in his alma mater. He arrived at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago the following fall. Smith released his comic book titled Choi during his time at SAIC, visiting South Korea for research and inspiration. In 2009, he would complete his bachelor's in fine arts with a focus on graphic illustration and sculpture.

“I wanted to challenge myself,” he said. “I stayed there all four years. I was an RA (resident assistant) and an orientation leader. And that kind of handles the journey from St. Louis to Chicago.”

Smith landed a job as an assistant for renowned sculptor Theaster Gates, and later received an opportunity to give back to his community as an art instructor at the Gary Comer Youth Center, teaching the basics of fine arts to youth of color.

“They were short-staffed,” Smith added. “A friend of Theaster's reached out to him and said, 'Hey, we're short-staffed here [Gary Comer Youth Center]. We can use another teaching artist. What about that guy that works for you? Do you think he would be interested in teaching?' And then, that's how I got that job.”

View from behind of someone perusing a comic book.

Pocket Con.

Photo: Elgin Smith.

For the next 14 years, Smith taught art at other local nonprofit organizations; he even taught cartoon and anime design at Columbia College Chicago, an institution that offered him a scholarship while he was in high school. Smith also revised workshops and developed curriculums at Northwestern University School of Law for the Know Your Rights program, which focused on empowering youth to know their rights and protect their rights. Smith has devoted much of his time to teaching art to incarcerated minors.

“I love youth,” he said. “And youth work is so important.”

In 2012, Smith’s love for comics sparked the idea to co-create a convention for all comic enthusiasts, especially those of color—that’s when Pocket Con first came into existence.

“Back when we started the convention, I used to teach at the Gary Comer Youth Center,” Smith said. “That’s actually where the name of the convention comes from. Like from “Pocket Town” in that area of 75th and South Chicago. And back during that time, I was teaching a comic book illustration class. I was asking a youth like, ‘Hey, do you know any comic book heroes of color?’ And after doing like a self-portrait project, all of the kids were drawing themselves as white folks. When I asked them if they know any characters of color, one student said ‘Batman.’ He said it because his suit was black. He didn’t identify any other characters that they could think of that were Black superhero characters.”

“I have been going to different conventions. And shout out to Turtel Onli, who used to run the Black Age of Comics at the DuSable Museum of African American History, they would have a table there. And when I went there and I was just like, ‘Yo, this is really dope. But I would love to see this happen on a larger scale.’ And that’s where Pocket Con came from.”

Pocket Con includes music and dance performances, workshops, panels, video gaming setups, and costumes. Phenomenal artists such as Turtel Onli, Maurice Buckley, Lenny Alves, Ramel Hill, Andrea Pearson, and Robin Carnilius will be attending this event. The Microphone Misfitz, Rai Musica, Jovan Landry, Electric Mothership, and Juke 4 Liberation will be the musical guests.

“It’s all been a diverse event and whatnot,” Smith added. “It’s going to be super-diverse even with our artists that we chose this year, which is what I am super excited about too.”

Pocket Con is a haven for anyone who admires the stories and graphic illustrations of comic books, regardless of color; that’s what Smith wants to create by giving people from all backgrounds a space to celebrate their love of comics for an entire day.

“We want to make sure that the demographics are as balanced and diverse as possible,” he said. “We want to make sure that there’s a large amount of female artists too. We want to make sure that the comics reflect the community that I live in, and you live in. It is a celebration of creators and characters of color because we live in a world of color. I want to make sure the convention reflects that, and that’s also going to be reflected in the artists.”

Pocket Con: Comics for Chicago's Youth video still

Intro to Pocket Con

Find the full schedule and more on the event page.